DRIVIN THRU DIXIE
I'd been to the South twice before. Now, I'm not including trips to Maryland or time spent on the Western shores of the Potomac. Yeah, technically the Virginia suburbs of DC are south of the Mason-Dixon line. But that would be like someone telling me they've "been to NY" because they visited a friend at SUNY Buffalo, or went to an NCAA Tourney game at the Carrierdome in Syracuse.
So, for me, two prior trips: a drink & smoke-filled road trip to Lollapalooza '93 at the Metrolina Fairgrounds outside Charlotte, and a week-long visit to some friends in Asheville in 1991. Or as another friends referred to it, in an e-mail last week: that gosh-darned hippy town, Asheville. Not exactly Stars & Bars; barbeque as a noun, as opposed to a verb; or baptisms in the waters of the Chattahoochie.
So as we drove down interstate 81 through the beatiful Shenandoah Valley, I felt like I'd been there before. The Shenadoah Valley is simply stunning: miles and miles of lush fields, covered in farmland, sprinkled with trees. Impossibly wide, yet just narrow enough to see the mountains on either side. Based on the four times I've driven through it, there's some kind of extra color there. Not just the green of the mountains and the blue of the sky, there's an ochre-color that rises from the land. Words don't do it justice; you'll have to see it for yourself.
That first evening we got as far as Roanoke, VA, a city nestled in the Appalachians, not far from West Virginia. From the highway entering town, the center of the city seems dominated by red brick warehouses sitting along rail lines cutting through the hills. Yet, once you turn off the road, it's clear that for about 10 blocks in either direction, there's a well-developed downtown, complete with office buildings, restaurants, and parking lots. This was the first example of what I'd see in every town went to: it looked just like everywhere else.
The downtown was nice enough, but Roanoke looked just like any other small city in America: cafes, ethnic restaurants, glass office buildings among those of brick, and a "revitalized" downtown in which the oldest, most warehouse-dominated section was replaced with bars, more cafes, Thai restaurants, red-brick sidewalks, funky boutiques, and outdoor seating. Additionally, Roanoke has a small section as one heads out of town which is zoned for only "authentic" looking buildings, most of which housed law offices, doctors, dentists, and other small businesses.
This isn't to say, by the way, that I didn't like the town. In fact, I did. It's actually quite charming, the people were friendly, the businesses seemed to be functional for the local residents, not just potential tourists, and the urban planning made sense. It just surprised me that it was so similar to downtowns in other places I've visted that aren't in the South: Burlington VT, Santa Cruz CA, Portsmouth NH, Ithaca, NY. I like all those places to. And change the accents, change the flavor of the tchatchkas they sell, and you'd never know the difference.
The outskirts of town, too, were the same as everywhere else: malls, shopping centers, McDonalds, Subway, Barnes & Noble, Exxon, medical plazas, Mexican restaurants, Chinese buffets, Holiday Inn Express, sushi joints. You know the drill. Again, I don't hold that against Roanoke: everyone has to shop, has to eat, has to fuel up the car, has to go to the doctor. But somehow I thought there'd be something different about such a place in the South. But it was largely the same.
I say largely, because there was one difference: a lot of political signs. For George Allen mostly, but also for his opponent, as well as for other races. Strangely, none of the signs indicated the candidate's party affiliation. I know Allen is a Republican, but otherwise I couldn't tell. Perhaps everyone is in the GOP there, and such indicators are unnecessary. I don't know.
To be continued.